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Blaze Review

Blaze (2022) Film Review from the 21st Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Del Kathryn Barton, starring Julia Savage, Simon Baker, Yael Stone, Remy Hii, Josh Lawson, Morgan Davies, Kristy Wordsworth, John Waters, Heather Mitchell, Rebecca Massey, Will McDonald, Sofia Hampson, Ryan Hedges, Neal Horton, Kailah Cabanas, and Bernie Van Tiel.

We’ve seen adolescent angst on-screen more times than we can count, but it’s not every day that a film can tap into such a visceral strain of it. With her feature-length debut Blaze, Del Kathryn Barton uses her inter-disciplinary artistry and penchant for sequins and glitter to mirror the titular protagonist’s psychological turmoil in a uniquely upsetting way.

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At first Blaze feels like it might be headed down a trope-heavy path, but Barton is quick to tell us that she’s ready to rebuff those notions. Right off the bat: rather than having Blaze (Julia Savage) be the character to experience an attack on herself and then use that in a narratively motivating fashion, the teenage girl simply plays witness to one near her home in the Sydney suburbs. But “simply” might not be the most appropriate adjective, as in the wake of watching the sexual assault and subsequent murder unfold she falls into a catatonic state – cloistering up as a conflux of shock, fear, disgust, anger, and guilt slowly begins gnawing away at her.

Through social media sleuthing Blaze becomes informed of and attached to Hanna (Yael Stone), the deceased woman, but she doesn’t really know what to do with this newfound information and obsession. Furthermore, her conception of the social implications of acts like violence and sexual intimacy becomes blurred, to the point where Barton and her co-writer Huna Amweero seem to imply – through separate montages of jiu-jitsu fights and finely-textured hallucinations – an unfortunate pubescent and/or PTSD-fueled congruence of the two. Blaze’s patient single father (Simon Baker) and her schoolfriend (Sofia Hampson) attempt to make in-roads into her psyche, but those mostly end up collapsing in spectacular fashion.

Blaze would rather just keep to herself … and the sparkly pink dragon that lives in her bedroom, of course. Blaze’s sense of imagination is her only guaranteed form of power, and the dragon provides her with her only guaranteed form of sanctuary. As the film progresses, their shared prevalence is kicked into a feathery, fangled, and flamboyant overdrive.

Barton’s presentation of Blaze’s struggle isn’t necessarily aimless or non-linear, but instead endless. We never witness Hanna’s rapist (Josh Lawson) experience justice outside of a preliminary mediation, where most of the focus is on his defense scrutinizing Blaze’s authenticity. Weeks later, when Blaze finally gathers enough courage to confront the man directly, on the street, she’s ignored and undermined by the authority figures on the periphery. Even by the end of the film we’re only just heading towards an actual trial for the rapist, and have no idea how it will end (although a cursory understanding of Western judicial practices IRL should suggest us that justice is highly unlikely).

Thus, Blaze’s dragon and her creative strength remain her only tried-and-true coping mechanisms, and anything that could potentially counter them (like psychiatric meds) is seen as a violent affront. Blaze even asks a court-appointed psychiatrist (Rebecca Massey) if the drugs will “kill” her dragon, but all she’s granted as a response is a cold shoulder.

To some, this may feel overly pessimistic and unfulfilling of a rape-revenge-adjacent story, and there is some validity in that: Barton and Amweero’s script frequently draws our attention to the sheer lack of justice that exists within the modern world, and how deep-seeded sexist ideas have us attacking and scrutinizing all types of victims rather than garnishing them with support. (Blaze reckons with this unfair double standard after being committed to a psychiatric hospital – “Why am I locked up but he’s not?” – but even her therapist [Bernie Van Tiel] can only offer her supportive condolences.)

However, that sort of downtrodden cynicism anchors the film in an emotional earnestness that pairs beautifully with its elements of magical realism, ultimately swelling into a profound sense of hope. Blaze is not traversing the stringent path of a heroine’s journey but rather the winding and volatile one towards adulthood, reckoning with all its conflicts and contradictions while making peace with its never-ending nature. Exposing these glimmers of optimism that exist within the beast that is our modern world fuel the film’s hopeful messaging even more, becoming a powerful feedback loop of what it feels like to finally stand in your personal truth. That feels as realist as anything else – despite the big pink dragon just chilling by the bedside table.

Savage – also in her feature debut – delivers a performance rife with tempered intensity, as she carries the film’s emotional core (as well as its core tumultuousness) with unperturbed grace. Baker provides Savage with a grounded foil, emanating Dedicated-but-Terrified Dad Energy the entire time. Jeremy Rouse’s camera direction provides us a glimpse into various characters’ fight-or-flight-ridden psyches (the utilization of SnorriCam here is terrific) while Dany Cooper’s editing splices all that together in ways that keep us constantly suspicious of the film’s “true” reality. And, of course, the artistic team behind the vibrant excesses of the dragon (which for a majority of the runtime seems to be a mix of animatronics and puppetry) are worth a shout-out.

Blaze is a discomfortingly brilliant coming-of-age piece that speaks thorny truths through sparkly fantasies, making Barton is a true cinematic talent to watch out for.

Rating: 8/10

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